Detroit-area family keeps Watertown relatives calm and informed during search for suspect.
The Echt family will never discount the power of social media again.
From 12:37 a.m. Friday, April 19, and throughout that day, the telephone, Facebook and other forms of media acted as a lifeline connecting Linda Echt in the Boston suburb of Watertown to her family and friends as police shot and killed one of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects and searched for the other — all in her neighborhood.
It started around 11 p.m. Thursday, April 18, when Linda, who rarely posts on Facebook, posted about the MIT officer who had been killed. Her nephew, Chris Robarge, in another part of Boston, responded to her Facebook post that he was listening to his police scanner and told her about the trouble at the Watertown 7 Eleven.
“At 12:44 or so, I turned the news off as I was terribly agitated and had the feeling something really terrible was about to happen, in addition to what had just occurred,” Linda told the JN. “I quickly went upstairs and woke up my partner, Jill, and told her about the killing at MIT. Before I could even finish telling her we heard rapid and extremely loud successive gunfire. It was so loud it sounded like it was at the bottom of our street.
“I told Jill to get down on the floor and I, too, hit the floor. I have no idea why my cell phone was in my hand — ask any of my family members, I never have it on me and when I do it isn’t charged — but it was, and I immediately turned it on and it was that same Facebook feed.”
Facebook post, Linda, 12:46: “I just heard many gun shots near me.”
Facebook post, Linda, 12:47: “Still hearing many gun shots and explosions! At 12:48 by some miracle my nephew responded:
Facebook post, Chris, 12:48: “Reports of shots fired in Watertown. They just referenced Dexter Ave. Lock your doors, stay inside, and be careful!
“Dexter is a few short blocks from our house,” Linda said. “The gun shots and explosions sounded like they were coming closer to us. Our house shook with each explosion.”
Robin Echt Axelrod in Ann Arbor was sleeping soundly when her terrified sister called.
“Linda has always been the most even-keeled person, very calm in the face of an emergency,” Axelrod said. “When she called around 1:30 a.m., her voice was uncharacteristically nervous, rattled. She had no cell and no TV. She said this might be her last phone call and she wanted family to know what’s going on. I told her we’re going to stay on the phone until it’s over.”
Robin didn’t let go of that phone until nearly 5 a.m.
She learned that Linda, her partner, Jill Ferraresso, and their son Noah, 12, and daughter Eva, 2, had not gone to watch the Boston Marathon, but now were part of the tragic drama anyway, holed up on the floor in a hallway with no windows in their Watertown home.
Linda told Robin she had heard grenade explosions and gunfire as well as the helicopters flying so low over their homes searching for suspects. She also said her nephew was feeding her information from his police scanner, but she was only getting delayed messages because she didn’t want to use her cell phone. Chris had warned her not to use the cell for fear of accidental detonation of any IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the area. Robin became the conduit for information both ways as she juggled between her cell phone, iPad, Facebook connection and TV news.
“It was odd, watching TV, seeing my sister’s familiar neighborhood, communicating with Chris [Jill’s nephew], who I’d never met, relaying what’s going on to my sister — bringing it full circle,” Robin said.
Facebook post, Robin, 1:48 a.m.: “Watching CNN, seeing the situation in Watertown unfold in front of my sister’s house. Stay tuned. Scared out of our minds.”
From TV, Facebook, Chris’ police scanner and Linda’s reports, the Echt family knew more than most about what was happening in their neighborhood, often just blocks away.
Facebook post, Chris, 1:49 a.m.: “They are still working the area extensively and missing a suspect. Stay put, stay calm. Sending love, and I promise to keep you updated for as long as it takes.”
A little later in the morning, Linda’s other sisters, Liz Echt of Bethesda, Md., and Karen Echt of Chicago enter the Facebook conversations, mostly thanking Chris for his info and staying abreast of developments. Their mother, Rita, in East Lansing, where the siblings all grew up, also joins in as well other family and friends. Brother Andrew Echt of Birmingham, an executive with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, was on a Federation mission in Cuba and unable to communicate.
Facebook post, Chris, 5:47 a.m.: “FBI is about to start actively working a track within the perimeter grid, along with existing resources.”
“We were on complete lockdown, with constant helicopters flying overhead, and SWAT, armored vehicles and police everywhere,” Linda said to the JN.“The media was all at the bottom of our street, and we were trapped in our homes feeling both incredibly well protected and vulnerable at the same time.”
Facebook post, Linda, 6:57 a.m.: “Thank you Chris and my sibs for staying up with us all night.”
An especially poignant moment in the ordeal came when Noah, who is on the autistic spectrum, was prepared by Linda and Jill for the arrival of a SWAT team to check their home to make sure it was safe. Upon seeing them in full gear at the door, he forgot who they were and asked if they were there to shoot them.
Soon after suspect No. 2 was captured on a nearby street later on Friday, the residents of Watertown were told it was safe to leave their homes.
“About 20 minutes later, we heard helicopters louder than ever, could literally feel them over our homes circling extremely low at nearly roof level over a large circled area about what appeared to be a mile or so away,” Linda said. “We then again hear explosions and gunfire, further away this time. We turned on the news and became aware that the suspect had been found on Franklin Street, across from where our daughter goes to daycare.
“After quite a while, [the suspect] was put in an ambulance that rode right past our street, and then folks fled into the streets to see each other, celebrate the fact that we could leave our homes and see each other. People gathered quickly, and the media was everywhere. Police cars, FBI, all kinds of vehicles came through the crowd to cheering and clapping.
“There was a sense of relief and elation that very quickly changed to shock and almost bewilderment,” Linda said. “We were all just kind of wandering and circling each other in the street.”
Robin saw her sister in the crowd on Mount Auburn Street on TV news and was elated.
‘Like A Battle Zone’
Facebook post, Robin, 7:48 a.m.: “It’s been a very long, terrifying night for all. Linda, Jill, Noah and Eva are so brave.”
Linda is the principal of a private school. At around 6:30 a.m. Friday, she pulled herself together and sent an email to her school community, followed by others every five hours or so. She knew Monday at school would be a tough day, but she had prepared her staff and had communicated with parents and students.
“There are a whole slew of us just walking around like zombies, going through the motions of life because that’s what we have to do,” Linda said. “Jill described [the ordeal] as a battle zone. I felt like I was in perpetual danger.
“My body is literally sore and I feel immensely agitated. It is difficult to concentrate and we are worried about our children,” she said. “I am totally in the place where I have to hold myself together — for my job and family — and I almost never have to feel that way.
“We are so grateful to our nephew and my siblings and my mother for staying calm and talking us through every moment. I can barely remember a whole minute that went by without one or many of them on the phone with us.”
Linda says Jill posts on Facebook all the time and that she and her whole family make fun of it. Not anymore.
“It will be a long time before I bash social media again,” she said. “And, she says, she’ll never be caught without a charged cell phone again.”
Linda may not yet be able to express what she took away from this harrowing experience, but Robin can.
“We all learned — when my dad died suddenly at age 53 — that life is fragile and how close family needs to be, and to live each moment to its fullest, she said. “We’ve had reminders along the way, and this was one of those intense reminders, to hug those you love, tell them you love them and be there for them in whatever way they need. This moment reconfirmed what we already knew, that we are there for each other.”
In a gesture of family she didn’t recognize at the time, Linda says that sometime on Friday she put on her father’s mezuzah. She hasn’t taken it off yet, and maybe never will.
By Keri Guten Cohen| Story Development Editor